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Syrian general who threatened refugees killed in Deir Ezzor

Issam Zahreddine, described as a war criminal by enemies, killed by landmine weeks after telling Syrian refugees 'never return'
Major General Issam Zahreddine talks with a civilian in Deir Ezzor last month (AFP)

A Syrian army general has been killed fighting in Deir Ezzor, weeks after he told Syrians refugees they should never return home, according to pro-government media sources.

Issam Zahreddine, a major general in the Republican Guard, was commanding a brigade of 7,000 soldiers against the Islamic State (IS) group when he was killed by a landmine.

Just weeks ago, Zahreddine, a high-profile figure among supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, celebrated after the Syrian army broke IS's siege on the city.

"We promised that we would not let Deir Ezzor fall, and it did not fall," he said.

But it was his comments to Syrian state television directed at fellow Syrians who had fled the country which drew controversy. 

"I beg you don't ever return, because even if the government forgives you, we will never forgive or forget," he said during the aired interview last month.

"If you know what is good for you, none of you return."

He later apologised, saying that he had been referring to IS and rebel fighters who killed Syrian troops.

"I was talking after I had seen the bodies of many Syrian soldiers who had been executed and beheaded and chopped into pieces," he said. "Of course our fellow citizens who have gone abroad are most welcome to return."

He also provoked criticism in 2016 when he was photographed posing next to dead bodies which appeared to have been tortured.

In a lawsuit filed against the Syrian government in 2016 on behalf of the family of American journalist Marie Colvin, Zahreddine was one of several high-ranking officials accused of conspiring to kill her. 

Colvin was killed in February 2012 by government artillery while reporting on the war from the rebel-held area of Baba Amr in Homs.

A week after the suit was filed, Assad denied that his forces were involved in killing her.

Reacting to his death on Wednesday, social media users described Zahreddine as everything from a hero to a war criminal.

With the defeat of IS in its former capital, Raqqa, earlier this week, the battle against the group will now centre on Deir Ezzor where it has now largely been confined and under attack from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and a Russia-backed Syrian government campaign.

SDF spokesman Talal Silo told Reuters on Tuesday that the group's fighters who have been in Raqqa will now redeploy to the frontlines in the eastern city.

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